Real life work has once again stepped in, so I won’t have the Helicobacter posts up until next week. However, in the meantime, a big story has broken regarding the 2001 anthrax attacks–a potential suspect, and his suicide before he could be arrested. Will we ever actually get to the bottom of this? More discussion below…
A bit of a primer on the anthrax attacks, as it’s been awhile since they were in the news. Recall that just after the chaos of 9/11 in 2001, envelopes containing anthrax were sent to a number of news organizations and senators, resulting in 22 cases of anthrax and 5 deaths. In the early days, the investigation seemed to rapidly close in on a suspect–Dr. Steven Hatfill, a virologist who had worked at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease (USAMRIID), where he carried out work on potential agents of biological warfare. However, subsequent investigations veered away from Hatfill, and he recently won a large settlement from the government.
So with Hatfill no longer the main “person of interest,” the investigations seemed to languish for many years. Though the attack strains were typed as the Ames strain–a strain that had been used at USAMRIID (among other places). And while the spores and handling procedures were described in a 2006 publication, anniversaries of the attack came and went with seemingly no movement in the case. Several months ago a report surfaced that four people were being investigated. And now–almost 7 years later–it seems that one of these suspects was identified–and committed suicide before he could be charged:
Bruce E. Ivins, was a leading military anthrax researcher who worked for the past 18 years at the government’s biodefense labs at Fort Detrick, Md. The laboratory has been at the center of the FBI’s investigation of the anthrax mailings.
Other U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the ongoing grand jury investigation, said prosecutors were closing in on Ivins, 62. They were planning an indictment that would have sought the death penalty for the attacks, which killed five people, crippled the postal system and traumatized a nation still reeling from the Sept. 11 attacks.
Authorities were investigating whether Ivins released the anthrax as a way to test his vaccine, officials said. The Justice Department has not yet decided whether to close the investigation, officials said, meaning it’s still not certain whether Ivins acted alone or had help. One official close to the case said that decision was expected within days.
The story goes on to say that Ivins has cooperated with investigators for the past year, and Ivins’ attorney says that his death is due to “relentless pressure of accusation and innuendo.” Certainly this is something Hatfill and others have learned–guilty or innocent, such investigations can destroy one’s life and livelihood. Indeed, Ivins had apparently been forced to take retirement starting next month, and had been escorted away from his lab and was on a suicide watch and under treatment for depression. His friends and family suggested he had been under strain for a year, as the government searched his home multiple times and had a car sitting and watching his house.
The story also reports that Ivins behaved strangely following the 2001 anthrax attacks, “when he conducted unauthorized testing for anthrax spores outside containment areas at the infectious disease research unit where he worked.” It’s suggested that a motive may have been to test anthrax treatments in the field, as Ivins reportedly “…complained of the limited supply of monkeys available for testing and said testing on animals is insufficient to demonstrate how humans would respond to treatment.”
Was Ivins’ guilt or fear of being caught a motive for his suicide–or was he hounded out of his job and into a spiral of depression by the government, looking to finally close this case after years of inaction? As I asked above, will we ever really get to the bottom of this? Even with this potential lead, it’s not looking a whole lot rosier than it did almost 7 years ago that we’ll ever know what really happened.